Archive for Sunday, January 23, 2011

Colleagues say Zenger ideal to restore integrity and trust at KU

Journal-World sports reporter Matt Tait spent a few days in Normal, Ill., getting a feel for the community that new Kansas University athletic director Sheahon Zenger comes from. During his six years at Illinois State, Zenger made quite an impression on the people there. Now that he's leaving, many of them are experiencing mixed emotions - sadness over him leaving and happiness for his new opportunity.

January 23, 2011


— There’s a little country diner about 20 miles west of Normal, Ill., that Sheahon Zenger and his friend, Don Franke, like to go for lunch.

Six years ago, when Zenger, the man who will take over as Kansas University’s athletic director on Feb. 1, was just starting his tenure as AD at Illinois State University, Franke — an ISU alumnus and huge supporter — took the new guy in town to the Busy Corner for some old-fashioned home cooking. The weekly escapes became a tradition as the friendship grew.

This is not rare for Zenger. He has lots of little traditions with big people. What is rare: After six years and who knows how many thousands of dollars in donations, Franke has felt first and foremost like a friend.

“He’s never asked me for a penny,” Franke said. “I like that. Because I’m more apt to give you money if you don’t ask for it. If you need it, I’ll give it to you.”

That concept is at the core of Zenger’s philosophy on how to run an athletic department. To him, it’s not just about wins, dollar signs and donations. It’s about relationships with people, a concept that now permeates Illinois State’s campus.

“We joke about it all the time,” Associate Athletic Director Aaron Leetch said. “We call it the gospel according to Zenger. And I’m a disciple.”

It’s actually more Founding Fathers than it is Our Father. It might not be an athletic department by the people — Zenger was not elected to his jobs at ISU or Kansas — but it is of the people and for the people.

“He always made you feel like, ‘Hey, we’re in this thing together, we’re friends and we’re gonna help each other,’” said ISU men’s basketball coach Tim Jankovich, who spent four years as an assistant to Bill Self at KU. “And there’s no greater feeling. What could be better than that?”


When Zenger arrived at Illinois State in 2005, he took over a program in desperate need of unity and camaraderie, and he delivered both.

Although ISU sits at the center of the “Twin Cities” of Bloomington-Normal, the university, particularly its athletic department, was the farthest thing from most people’s minds. The community didn’t care much for the Redbirds, the university had too much on its plate to care much about the community, and some people even talked about “a town with a college in it,” instead dubbing it a college town.

It was the perfect scenario for Zenger to walk into. Not because it was easy to fix, but because it was a situation begging for compassion. Zenger, along with his wife, Pam, and their three young children, brought more than that to the table.

Sure, there was plenty of talk; he’s a wizard with words. Shortly after arriving, he welcomed the entire student-athlete population to Redbird Arena and gave a fiery speech about what it meant to be a Redbird and what Illinois State was all about.

“He talked about his philosophy and how he was going to do things. And then he lived it,” said Larry Lyons, interim athletic director.

At the center of his focus was the student-athlete, albeit in a roundabout way.

“He didn’t tell me he was in it for the athletes,” said football coach Brock Spack, now in his third year at ISU. “That’s a given. He said, ‘I’m in it for the coaches. Because if the coaches aren’t getting what they want, the athletes aren’t getting what they need.’”

Things turned around quickly, and Zenger showed right away that the nice-guy approach didn’t interfere with his ability to handle the dirty work. Just a couple of years into his time at ISU, Zenger fired two of the school’s most popular coaches and replaced them with winners who bought in to his philosophy and passed it on to their athletes and their athletes’ families.


Zenger’s time at ISU was not limited to making people smile and reconnecting a city with its scholar athletes.

In addition to nearly doubling ISU’s annual fundraising dollars from $650,000 in 2005 to more than $1.2 million in 2010, Zenger redid the Redbirds’ baseball stadium, put into motion construction of a men’s basketball locker room at Redbird Arena, locked up plans to renovate the south gym at old Horton Field House so the men and women could practice at their own facilities and gave small face-lifts to several other facilities and playing surfaces.

Some athletic directors might choose to sit back and let those accomplishments speak for them. Not Zenger.

He still made it a point to get to every ISU event he could, from football games on Saturdays to swimming and gymnastics meets on weeknights.

“Every time I go to an athletic event, he’s there,” said Katelyn Massey, ISU junior track athlete. “And he’s really just been there for all the athletes and the coaches. Even the fans. He really gets into it with the fans.”

In many ways, that’s because Zenger is a fan himself.

“His behavior on game day, particularly on football game days, really intrigued me,” said ISU President Al Bowman. “You would expect the AD to really behave like the administrator. But he’s so passionate about winning and he has so much pride that the guy is a basketcase on game day. He is tied up in knots.”

Spend a couple of days in Bloomington-Normal area and you won’t see Zenger’s face plastered on billboards or posters anywhere. His signature, though, is everywhere.

“Spread the Red,” the billboards say. “This is your hometown team” is seen elsewhere.

“Before Sheahon got here, you almost never saw any red off campus,” said Mike Williams, ISU assistant sports information director and a lifelong Normal resident. “Now, it’s everywhere.”


Many people within the ISU athletic department are well-educated about the current goings-on at Kansas. They weren’t always.

Outside of KU’s national prominence in men’s basketball and its standing in the Big 12, what went down at Kansas was simply on a different plane for the folks at Illinois State.

Then Kansas stole ISU’s leader, but instead of lashing out like a scorned lover, Redbirds everywhere embraced the Jayhawks. Of course, KU has done its share of bringing attention to itself in the past 18 months. The ticket scandals, federal indictments, coaching resignations and fights between the men’s basketball and football teams all made national news and were talked about at ISU even before Zenger left.

“I get the sense that the Kansas community was looking for someone to restore integrity and trust,” Bowman said. “And when I talked to the chancellor there, I said, ‘There is no person on the planet in a better position to do that than Sheahon Zenger.’ And it’s not just that he’s from Kansas, but he oozes Kansas values.

“He’s real. He’s not pretentious. He’s smart. He’s all of the other things that you have to be to be a successful leader.”

At Kansas, one of the biggest challenges Zenger figures to encounter is the task of turning the Jayhawks’ football program into a profitable and consistent winner. Those who worked with him at ISU say they’re certain Zenger won’t focus so much on football that he’ll neglect everything else.

“He still believes that the student-athlete is what it’s all about,” Leetch, the associate athletic director, said. “And he will not compromise that.”

Added women’s basketball coach Stephanie Glance, whom Zenger hired in April after an initial phone interview that lasted five hours: “Most ADs put a lot of emphasis on football and men’s basketball, and rightfully so. They are the money-making sports. But women’s basketball, and women’s athletics in general, has a place. And Sheahon understands that and he appreciates that. He shows it. Not just in his backing of women’s athletics financially but in his spirit behind the backing.”

It doesn’t matter what building you’re in or what subject you’re talking about — people in Normal know Zenger.

That’s by design. When Zenger arrived at ISU six years ago, he wanted to make the community feel like a part of the university, like a part of his family.

The moves he made — even the tough ones — were with that in mind, and that’s why you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone among the 120,000-plus people of Bloomington-Normal who’s said, or even heard, a negative word about Zenger.

“He’s been a coach, he’s been an athlete, he’s been in the higher-ed part of it as well,” said Spack, the football coach. “And he appreciates the whole sphere of what college athletics is all about. I think he’s a perfect athletic director. I think he’s a dying breed, to be honest with you.”

Added Glance: “He really does think of himself as having a higher purpose.”


cheeseburger 7 years, 4 months ago

Bring on Dr. Zenger. The sooner I, and the university and the community, get the bitter taste of Perkins out of our mouths, the better!

Nathan Atchison 7 years, 4 months ago

does that include the taste of success he helped bring in 2008?

inspire 7 years, 4 months ago

As a former female athlete, I can say that his appearance last night was a very welcome surprise and goes a long way toward getting me to open my pocketbook to KU Athletics again. Not that there's much in that pocketbook but Zenger is the kind of guy I think I can trust with my donation. What a great weekend for female athlete alums! In the past, these weekends did not include tickets to a men's game. Kudos to all those who organized this year's events!

Moderateguy 7 years, 4 months ago

Seems like a big breath of fresh air to me. Welcome home Dr. Zenger!

puddleglum 7 years, 4 months ago

he already blew the 69-home game win streak, what's next?

hip_gma 7 years, 4 months ago

All I gotta say is "Papa's in the house" Anyone else see the resemblence? HA Seriously tho, very impressed with what I've read. There will always be naysayers in any situation. Welcome Sheahon!

Thats_messed_up 7 years, 4 months ago

You mean it's not about smoking cigars, driving corvettes, paying recruits' parents, and paying refs?

WaxAndWane 7 years, 4 months ago

Seems like a good guy. Hopefully he can continue to double the budget, improve facilities, negotiate an Orange Bowl appearance and keep T. Boone Pickens away from Bill Self after winning the NCAA championship.

BobtheBuilder 7 years, 4 months ago

Shleppy, or should I say Lew Perkins a** Kisser: I'm very confused as to what Lew did to bring success to the 2008 season. I don't remember him coaching or playing one down of football for the team, nor do I remember him coaching or playing one second for the KU Basketball team. Anyone can leave the University in debt. The man was a scumbag that stole from the state o fKansas and allowed a major, major ticket scandal to unfold in front of his eyes. Before it's all over, I'm sure there will be signs he knew about the scandal and possibly participated in it. Welcome to the new Athletic Director. I hope you get rid of the rest of the scum trolling around the athletic department.

Nathan Atchison 7 years, 4 months ago

at least you got the confused part right.

Robert Rauktis 7 years, 4 months ago

I wonder if he'll clean house of the Lew toadies. That'd probably balance the budget! I mean the White House spokesperson doesn't get $145,000 a year. What do these guys do? Open envelopes?

crimsonwithblue22 7 years, 4 months ago

2008? Great year for KU, no doubt. Bill Self, hired by Dru Jennings. Mark Mangino, hired by Al Bohl. Orange Bowl, well we promised and over-bought thousands of tickets to get in ( you can give Lew some credit for outmaneuvering Missouri here ) but we had to write a check for those tickets and the football team still gets most of the credit for having a good enough resume' to qualify. Either way, those coaches ran those programs and got those players to perform, Lew did not hire either coach and had no affect on those performances and achievements. Right place at the right time.

Hope our new athletic department can continue to double our athletic budget? Not gonna happen and it will have nothing to do with Dr. Zenger's ability either, I believe he will do an outstanding job. There are lots of bridges that have been burned and in need of repair post-Lew, not to mention Lew's best trick on raising revenue was to blackmail our basketball fan base to the max, so that trick has already been done. Not much left to hold as a hammer.

Improvement of facilities? Yes, you can give him some credit on this one for the simple fact that he got them pushed through and accomplished. However, they are FAR from paid for and will require a good chunk of our athletic budget going forward, essentially hamstringing our new athletic director from doing anything new facilities-wise in the near future. It's been a positive, but giving Lew too much credit when it is now the responsibility of the new A.D. ( and our alumni ) to get them paid off is a mistake.

Keeping T. Boone Pickens away from Self after our winning of the national championship? Lew had zero to do with any of that, other than offering a raise and contract extension which any KU Athletic Director would have done after that season. It is KU's basketball history and tradition that put Self in the position to win a championship in the first place and Self is smart enough to recognize it. His ability to get better recruits and possibly win more championships at KU is what kept him here at KU as opposed to going to Oklahoma State for short-term monetary gains. Ego trumped greed in this case and we're splitting hairs between a million here or there.

Hope that clarifies things a bit. Rock Chalk.

Frightwig 7 years, 4 months ago

Yes it clarifies things. You basically confirmed that Lew doubled the budget, negotiated the Orange Bowl appearance, improved facilities and offered Bill Self a contract that he chose over Oklahoma.

Nathan Atchison 7 years, 4 months ago

I've just got Zenger fatigue. it seems like he's in the paper every other day. i would like to see some results before i jump on his bandwagon. with all the Zenger press there's no room in the paper for another awesome Bob Schumm article.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.